Apr 12, 2010

Coalition lags on foreign affairs — and voters want to cosy with China

Despite recent events, many Australians actually want a closer relationship with China, the latest Essential Research polling shows. But they're not so keen on India.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Essential Research's latest poll reveals some intriguing aspects of Australians' attitudes toward foreign relations. The Prime Minister scores strongly in terms of approval of his handling of foreign relations, with 50% approving and 32% disapproving, although the result tends to follow party lines. Labor also holds a strong lead (41-27%) over the Coalition in terms of who is trusted more on handling foreign affairs, with 22% saying no difference -- suggesting the Howard Government's strong record on foreign relations and national security has faded from memory. The Coalition has had difficulties in foreign affairs since entering Opposition, having had three foreign affairs shadow ministers in three years, and losing much of its Howard-era frontbench. Julie Bishop, who has held the position since giving up the shadow treasurership in 2009, has attracted strong criticism from traditionally conservative-aligned commentators for her performance in the role. Voters' responses on individual countries also suggests why the Government has developed a strong reputation on foreign affairs. Asked how important relations with a number of countries were, 59% said close relations with the United States were very important, 56% said New Zealand and 51% said China. While the Rudd Government has had difficulties in its relationship with Beijing, it has also been associated with increased Chinese investment and the Prime Minister's personal connections with the country. Rudd also quickly established a good relationship with President Obama, especially through the GFC and the establishment of the G20 as the primary international economic grouping. Moreover, 33% of voters actually want Australia to have a closer relationship with China. China also scored strongly as a country that people wanted a less close relationship with -- 13% -- but the economic importance of China appears to have been recognised as a key foreign relations issue for Australia. Indonesia also scored highly -- 30% -- as a country voters wanted a closer relationship with. India, in contrast, scored much lower than China for a "closer relationship" -- 24% -- and higher on "less close relationship" -- 16% -- suggesting there remains residual hostility toward India, possibly over call centres and the reaction of student bashings. Separate UMR research out today also suggests India is regarded in an unfavourable light by Australians. Essential also asked about voters' expectations about the May Budget. Strong support for cutting spend (32%) confirmed previous polling that voters believe it's time for the Government to normalise its fiscal approach and start trying to bring the deficit down, although there's still considerable support (24%) for increasing payments to low-income earners. 20% of voters also nominated defence and national security as the best place for expenditure cuts, ahead of welfare payments (15%); health and education were clearly considered no-go areas for razor gangs, with only 3% and 2% supporting cuts there. The mood among voters reflects these budget expectations -- far more voters (34%) thought the budget would be personally bad for them than good for them (11%), suggesting voters have accepted that expenditure cuts will end up directly affecting them.

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